Weng Fen 翁奋 — also known as Weng Peijun 翁培竣 — is a Chinese photographer born in 1961 on the island of Hainan. He graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1985. Weng has made himself known from the late 1990s onward, especially at the turn of the 2000s with several enigmatic photographic series that represent an ambivalent portrayal of the modern city, which appears at the frontier between poetical contemplation and anxiety about urban transformations. His artworks are often composed of two key elements: first a distant landscape either urban (Haikou, Shenzhen, Shanghai) or natural, second human figures. The following interview was conducted by Marine Cabos in November 2015.
Do you remember your initial experience at making photography? Who has influenced you?
In 1988 while I was travelling through Hong Kong and the United States, I bought my first camera: a Nikon for beginners. By the end of the same year, I returned to Hainan and started to practice photography. I began to contemplate and arrange the city through the camera viewfinder. I particularly like Jeff Wall and Nan Goldin, but it is perhaps the Dusseldorf School of Photography that has most influenced me. I particularly love their thinking, the way they conceive things, their vision and their photographic style.
Does your creative process include several steps? If so, which ones?
When I create, I first think about the things I am interested in and ask myself why I feel concerned. Then I focus my attention on how to represent these things and what might be their outcomes. Second I concentrate on technical aspects, which equipment it requires, which technological data it necessitates, which style to adopt, which model to follow, which character or landscape I should choose, and so forth. Still the most important goal remains to express my inner self. Hence I feel like a director who is collaborating with several people. In order to accomplish this, I need to carry out some tests via my camera and computer, and only then can I realize the final image.
Would you please tell me more about your series “Girls in Hood”?
I initiated this series in 2003. It deals with notions of dissimulation, terror, and loss of identity. We are living in an instable world, in which everything is in unceasing transformations, in which terrible things happen. All these factors have altered our identity. Our world resembles a play and we are all actors without being aware of it.
It seems that your series “On the Wall” and “Birds Eye View” bear similarities, namely the young girls who are turning their back at us while gazing at a distant urban landscape. Is there a reason for these similarities?
These young girls are the mirrors of us. The distant cities are the by-products of modernization’s dream; in the eyes of people they represent civilization and modern progress. The city has become the religion of today. By calmly observing this “hyper-progress”, I can then understand that men’s desires are the basis for social problems. The girls embody these desires, these needs. Through them, we are at the same time excited, puzzled, waiting…
How would you describe your work in three words?
“Observation”, “desire”, “imitation”. Observation echoes the calm and contemplative dimensions in my photographs. Desire conveys the collective consciousness of today, this “hyper-progress”, in the image of contemporary urbanization. Imitation calls to mind the city as a product that proceeds from the dream of modern civilization, the city as an imitation of our religion and of our values.
More and more Chinese photographers utilize the online platform Instagram to share their images. What is your take on this? Are you interested in Instagram?
I don’t have an Instagram account yet, but I am planning to create one soon.
If you were a landscape, which one would you be?
If I were a landscape I would like to be a landscape that unites people and the world today. I would like to be a real platform that would enable people to meditate upon this world.
Which artist do you like the most at the moment?
This question is so vast, I like loads of artists. I would write an endless list.
What are your future projects?
I am still occupied in photographing Chinese urbanization. For instance, in 2014 I completed a series entitled “Gazing at the Ordos” (看鄂尔多斯), while I was pursuing other projects on Chinese cities. Currently I am working on a new project called “Landscape of Conflict” (对抗性的风景). It offers a series of images — still imbued with a sense of contemplative calm — that show territorial boundaries in conflict such as mainland China and Taiwan, North Korea and South Korea, Jerusalem and Palestine amongst others.
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic trilingual blog about photography and photographers in China.